Opening a Writing Center: A Fight Against Self-doubt

August 8, 2013

by Matthew Swenson

The American poet and novelist Sylvia Plath once wrote, “…everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.” As an English facilitator, I know writing is a powerful tool towards self-confidence. Writing should be an exciting, enjoyable, and rewarding experience. Unfortunately for some high school students, writing has become a dreaded task—a desperate attempt at a word count. And for others, writing has become a sign of their academic weakness and their perceived lack of intelligence.

All too often I hear, “I am not a good writer” from students. Their perception of their lack of ability to write stems from years of standardized exams, grammar-driven grading, and a lack of positive feedback. Many of my students are suffering from what Plath explains as the enemy to creativity: self-doubt. It is time for a change.

Last year, I had the honor of joining other educators for a series of professional development sessions hosted by the University of Arkansas, in collaboration with the Brown Chair, focused on implementing and maintaining a writing center at the secondary level. The professional development explored writing center theory and gave a glimpse into the possible positive outcomes presented by those who had successfully started and maintained a high school writing center.

After this professional development, I, along with my colleague, knew that a writing center was something that could have huge positive outcomes for our school’s culture and academic goals. We knew that a writing center could be something that took some students from a place of self-doubt and/or apathy to a place of confidence and comfort. One of the major roadblocks to growing student confidence in a writing center is for the center to be branded a “remediation center,” a place for bad writers.

To be clear, a writing center is a place for ALL writers, strong and weak. A writing center is a complete redesign in how a student interacts with writing, at least in most secondary settings. Normally, students receive an assignment, go through the writing process, and then they are assessed on their work. Writing Center Theory realizes that even the best writers need support outside of the classroom. Thus, in the case of our center, we will train peer tutors to facilitate conversations with students during advisory (similar to homeroom) and after school. The forty-minute session will be voluntary and completely student-driven and discussion-based. The tutor and the client plot the course of the conversation together. The peer tutor does not write or rewrite a paper for the student, nor is the tutor merely a proofreader.

Instead, writing center tutors know that the development of a student’s writing, at any skill level, requires an opportunity to talk about their writing. The peer tutors, like successful teachers of writing, engage students in conversations about their work, thereby helping students understand and apply a broad range of writing principles. Because of the discussion-based nature of the conferences, there is something to be discovered by clients of all abilities. Strong writers, weak writers, and all of those in between, can benefit from a session at the writing center.

Over time, this process will empower students. Not only do they begin to improve as writers, but they will begin to see themselves as writers. Their self-doubt will be minimized. Their confidence will grow. As I write this, I am only speaking in theory. While writing centers have been around for 30 years, they are not often found in secondary institutions. There has never been a writing center at the high school where I teach. In one weeks, the students will begin to design our writing center. They will explore theory, write a vision, create an action plan, and begin marketing our writing center. They will train, not only in the writing process, but also in the art of speaking and connecting with others. They will reflect, rework, redesign, and grow. Then, in about five weeks, we will be open for all students, and tutors will begin having writing-focused discussions with other students.

This long process of finding our role is completely student-driven, like almost everything in the writing center. And that is the most exciting part. It is important to note that we are still fundraising for our writing center. The funds will be used to furnish the writing center, to purchase preliminary supplies, and to buy the tutors their tutor handbooks. If you are interested in donating you can click the link above or contact me directly. A special thanks to all of those who have already donated!